Grass Roots: articles

Man behind the mischief

GEOFFREY ATHERDEN knows exactly where Col Dunkley, the mayor of Arcadia Waters, is coming from.

"He's the kind of man who finds out what direction the people are moving in and rushes to the front to lead them," says Atherden.

Atherden should know precisely what is going on in the mind of the ambitious, politically savvy mayor, of course, after having created him as the lead character in Grass Roots, his satirical series on local government.

Col Dunkley's ability to understand public thinking and rush to lead was vividly demonstrated in the final episode of Grass Roots' first series, recently shown again on the ABC.

In the climactic scene of the series, Mayor Dunkley risked his future when he suddenly reversed his previous decision to back a big redevelopment program being pushed through the council. Col's about face earned him the plaudits of the little people who packed the council meeting but angered the powerful developer, Morgan Bartok.

It's a fair bet the pro-development lobby on the council will make Mayor Dunkley pay for his courageous change of mind when Grass Roots begins its second series on Wednesday.

Atherden, best-known for his long-running series Mother and Son, with Garry McDonald and the late Ruth Cracknell, wrote his first series of Grass Roots in 2000.

The series was so well-received it has earned a second series, with most of the characters back in the council chambers for a new set of issues, deals, political lobbying, personality clashes and community involvement.

Geoff Morrell, who proved so adept at portraying the mayor's ingratiating personality and leadership qualities, is back in the mayoral chains, with Rhys Muldoon as Arcadia Waters' wary general manager Greg Dominelli and Chris Haywood as the totally corruptible director of planning and building.

The only major cast change is the departure of Sophie Heathcote as the glamorous, power-dressing blonde and manipulative councillor Biddy Marchant, who this time round is played by Jodie Dry, another shapely blonde bombshell.

Atherden admits many people feared that a series of comedy-dramas about the machinations of local government was hardly the type of programming to generate much excitement.

But he points out that local government has the most impact on our daily lives and that its decisions most directly affect ordinary people—hence the high emotional content of much of the debate about community issues that goes on inside and outside every suburban council across the country.

"What is also appealing about local government is that its members do not have the safety net of State and Federal politicians," Says Atherden. "There are no minders or spin doctors to tell them what to say or how to say it, which is why they very often put their foot in it when they make public statements."

One only has to recall this week's brouhaha about Vincent town councillors trying to justify the purchase of cosmetics and moccasins on the council's expense account to realise the combination of outrage and unintentional humour that lies at the heart of this branch of government.

Atherden also makes the point that local councillors are far more visible—and hence approachable—as they move about their suburban constituency. "It's possible to bail them up in the supermarket and have your say," says Atherden, though I must admit I've never once seen my ward councillor in the local Supa Valu.

It is tempting to think Atherden probably based his series on personal experience of a run-in with councils and the writer does admit he did have a couple of encounters with his local Mosman Council on Sydney's North Shore before deciding to write Grass Roots. These led him to observe the behaviour of his local councillors in meetings, the kind of research that was to intensify as his ideas for the series took root.

Atherden says he has studied the machinations and political wheeler-dealing very closely, though he says Arcadia Waters is entirely a fictional creation and his characters an amalgam of councillors he has observed.

He was also amused to discover that a housing development in the north of Perth will be called Arcadia Waters.

And speaking of WA, Atherden says that his grandfather was in fact a Fremantle councillor—and a local builder—back in the 1920s before he moved to Canberra.

• Grass Roots, ABC, Wednesdays, 9.30pm.

• To coincide with the second series, Atherden has written Grass Roots: Col Dunkley's Guide to Local Government (ABC Books, $24.95).

By Ron Banks
March 18, 2003
The West Australian